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Ken SugiuraKen Sugiura

Tech opponent preview: North Carolina

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North Carolina running back Romar Morris - shown here getting tackled by Georgia Tech defensive back Chris Milton in last year's 28-20 Tech win - is one of a number of Tar Heels backs who make UNC a threat to win the ACC's Coastal Division (Associated Press).

North Carolina running back Romar Morris – shown here getting tackled by Georgia Tech defensive back Chris Milton in last year’s 28-20 Tech win – is one of a number of Tar Heels backs who make UNC a threat to win the ACC’s Coastal Division (Associated Press).

 

This is the seventh installment in the series previewing Georgia Tech’s opponent. The Yellow Jackets will play North Carolina Nov. 18 at Kenan Stadium. The Jackets have won five in a row and 14 of the last 16 against the Tar Heels, including last year’s 28-20 win in the rain at Bobby Dodd Stadium. Doing the honors for the blog today is News & Observer UNC beat writer Andrew Carter. You can follow him on Twitter here and read his reports here.

Q: Is quarterback Marquise Williams possibly a better fit for the offense than Bryn Renner was?

A: Williams was a better fit for the offense last year, primarily because of his mobility, which is something Renner lacked. UNC’s offensive line wasn’t great at pass protection last season – or even good, for much of the season – and so Williams’ ability to get out of the pocket and make something out of nothing was a big factor in UNC’s second-half turnaround. Williams started the final five games last season, after Renner went down with a shoulder injury, but it’s no guarantee that Williams enters the season as the starter.

Mitch Trubisky, a redshirt freshman, will challenge Williams in the preseason. Larry Fedora has said it’s an open competition, and it wouldn’t be too shocking to see Trubisky emerge as the winner – if not by the start of the season then at some point not long after. Like Williams, Trubisky is mobile, and he’s considered a better passer than Williams.

Q: What position group could make or break North Carolina’s season?

A: Fedora was asked this same question recently at ACC Kickoff, and he went with the offensive line. So I’ll go with that, too. The line has to replace its two best players from last season – left tackle James Hurst, a four-year starter, and center Russell Bodine, who surprised people by leaving school a year early. The center position is set with Lucas Crowley, who played last season when he had the chance, but the big question is left tackle.

UNC has a freshman there named Bentley Spain, who enrolled early, and I think the hope is that he takes over there and makes that position his. He’s the most talented player at that position, and he was among the team’s most heralded incoming recruits. But still, he’s only a freshman. Right tackle is also a concern, because nobody played particularly well there last season. The middle of the line, at least, should be pretty decent. But if the group comes together as a whole and plays well, UNC could have a breakout season. If the line continues to be inconsistent, that would likely keep the Tar Heels from having a great season.

Q: How does Duke beating North Carolina two years in a row register?

A: I think it has to be a surprise to Fedora, who arrived at UNC in the midst of a long losing streak against N.C. State, and a long – long, long, long – run of dominance against Duke. When Fedora came here two and a half years ago, the fans really wanted to beat N.C. State. Fedora counted down the days to the State game, he was reminded of it during booster meetings and all of that. But since then, State and Duke have kind of switched places. I think the fans still get more fired up for games against the Wolfpack, but Duke is clearly the better team than N.C. State right now, and the Blue Devils have beaten UNC two years in a row, which nobody saw coming two years ago.

Fedora has said all the right things about this publicly, but I imagine it gnaws at him – the thought that Duke has surpassed UNC, and N.C. State, for that matter, to become the best ACC team in the state. You can say, maybe, that Duke caught UNC by surprise in 2012, but that certainly wasn’t the case last year. And this year, the UNC-Duke game will be huge – a Thursday night, nationally-televised game in Durham. It might well decide the Coastal Division, too. On some level, Fedora probably does like that Duke is relevant in football. It makes the football side of the rivalry more meaningful and fun. But losing isn’t fun, and beating Duke has to be one of UNC’s primary goals this season.

Q: One reason that Tech coach Paul Johnson has resisted a faster pace on offense is because of the pressure it can put on the defense (i.e., putting it back on the field after a three-and-out that takes 60 seconds). Is there a resignation, or maybe understanding, that a Larry Fedora defense will always struggle, to some degree, for that reason?

A: I think to some degree there’s an understanding of that, but Fedora won’t use it as an excuse. I do think that’s a valid reason for some of UNC’s defensive woes of the past couple of seasons. When you’re playing as fast as UNC plays on offense, you’re asking a lot out of your defense. And there isn’t a ton of difference, in terms of rest for the defense, between a good offensive possession and a not-so good one. Even the good ones are going to be quick, if they’re going according to Fedora’s plan. That said, UNC’s defense improved significantly during the second half of last season. The turnaround could be attributed to a lot of things – an easier schedule, defensive end Kareem Martin playing with inspiration – but I think it’s fair to say the players just starting getting it. A lot of guys were lost in year one of this new system, and some of that carried over at the start of last season. There shouldn’t be any of that this season, and so Fedora is expecting more improvement.

Q: The Tar Heels are a popular (or at least not uncommon) pick to win the Coastal for the first time. Are you buying in?

A: Yes and no. I don’t think it’s a crazy thought, thinking that UNC could win the division. The talent is there, especially at the skill positions. This is a team that should score a lot of points, and if the offensive line comes together UNC has a chance to be the best offensive team in the ACC outside of Florida State. But that’s a big if, to me, and another one is the defensive line, where UNC has to replace the aforementioned Martin and Tim Jackson, who was a dependable defensive tackle. The best part of the defense is the secondary, and that should help UNC eliminate some of those big plays it has given up in recent years. But up front, there are a lot of questions on both sides – too many questions for me to feel comfortable totally buying into this team winning the Coastal. It can happen, but there’s a lot to prove. You could probably say that about almost any team in the division.

 

Tech opponent previews

Wofford, Aug. 30

Tulane, Sept. 6

Georgia Southern, Sept. 13

Virginia Tech, Sept. 20

Miami, Oct. 4

Duke, Oct. 11

Next up: Pittsburgh

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